When Pam and I headed into the Columbia River Gorge last Sunday one of my hopes was that we’d find our first blooming native wildflower of 2023, and salt-and-pepper seemed a likely candidate. The tiny (the whole flower umbel is less than a half inch wide) clumps of Lomatium shown here were the only plants in flower of any sort that we found, but I’m not positive which salt-and-pepper they are. Not that this is a new thing, since Mathias (1938) segregated them in his revision of the genus, but I was unaware that there are 2 very similar species that grow in the same areas and flower at the same time, both are commonly called salt-and-pepper, and they have often been thought to be the same species, Lomatium gormanii. There are two main differences between the 2 species- Lomatium piperi often has a leaf-like bract growing from the scape (the stem of the flower umbel), while L. gormanii usually lacks that bract. But the problem is that L. piperii doesn’t always have that caulescent bract, and L. gormanii sometimes has a very small one. The only positive way to tell the two species apart is that L. piperi has smooth (glabrous) fruits, and L. gormanii has minutely pubescent (hairy) ones.
So, what it comes down to is that if one is not an experienced botanist with impeccable timing there’s no telling for sure whether one is looking at Gorman’s salt-and-pepper or Piper’s salt-and-pepper. And for those of us who are recreational naturalists, as opposed to scientists doing surveys, does it matter? Some of my photos seem to show a bit of caulescent bract, but others do not, and the two species are said to occasionally grow side by side. While I have to admit that I’d have made an effort to determine whether the bracts were present or absent if I’d known it was an important trait, would I have been any more thrilled at knowing positively that some of them were Piper’s salt-and-pepper, than I already was at seeing a native wildflower blooming in the first week of February?
There is also the question of whether or not they are truly separate species. According to a study (Schlessman; 1984) designed to determine hybridization rates between taxa, in a controlled environment where pollen from one set of anthers was applied to the stigma of the alternate taxa, 38% of the L. gormanii X L. piperi crosses set seed. This is a very high percentage in a genus where hybridization is considered to be rare. And when it really comes down to it, what is a species concept except a snapshot in time, a temporary island of organisms in the vast sea of evolutionary history? I worry at times that the ‘splitters’, with their focus on finding the differences between individual organisms, lose sight of the inherent homogeneity of a given clade, and, in a world where race is already such a deeply divisive issue, I am concerned about the consequences should the mentality of the ‘splitters’ be applied to humanity.
The only human uses for this plant that I can find are that Paiutes in Oregon used the roots for food, either roasted or ground into flour. It is also interesting to note that on the websites ’Plants for a Future’, and ‘Native American Ethnobotany Database’, they list L. piperi or L. gormanii, but not both, so apparently they are considered equal for culinary purposes. It may seem I’m doing a lot of rationalizing here for the fact that I’m not positively identifying this plant, and possibly I am. However it is much more tedious and time consuming to essentially research two profiles just to see if there are differences between the two species that need to be noted. But in this case there were very few differences, although that could be because there just isn’t a lot of information available for either one.
Description-Small (less than 3.5” tall) plant with terminal segments of pinnate basal leaves over 10mm long, white petaled flowers with dark red to purple anthers, and may or may not have a leaf-like bract growing from the umbel peduncle or scape; entire umbel often less than 10mm in diameter.
Similar species–Lomatium geyeri is over 3.5” tall, and is not found in Oregon; Lomatium canbyi and L. ravenii have terminal leaf segments less than 10mm long; other Lomatium spp. do not have white petals with dark anthers.
Habitat– Open, often rocky areas, sagebrush steppe, grasslands.
Range– Native; east of the Cascades in BC, Washington, and Oregon; L. gormanii ranges further east, into Idaho, and L. piperi has been found farther south, possibly into California.
Reproductive timing– Blooms February to May
Eaten by– Anise and Indra swallowtail butterflies, and the white-lined Sphinx moth, probably use this as an occasional larval host; presumably an important source of nectar for early appearing native bees like those in the genus Andrena; voles probably eat the roots, since they seem to be fond of Lomatiums in general.
Etymology of names–Lomatium is from the Greek for ‘bordered’ which refers to the wings on the fruit. The specific epithets piperi and gormanii likely honor the botanists Charles Vancouver Piper (1867-1926) and Martin Woodlock Gorman (1853-1926), both of which worked with the parsleys in the PNW.